How to Talk About Race: 4 Things I Learned From Creating ‘Truth Be Told’

Released Wednesday, 10th August 2016
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I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.

–Maya Angelou

These words have guided me throughout the process of creating, producing and hosting Truth Be Told. Race is a highly emotional topic: sometimes so emotional that feelings overwhelm our better judgment. We had to find ways of talking about race that acknowledged these feelings and let people learn from each other’s experiences. I hope we succeeded — subscribe to the podcast and let us know what you think.

I don’t pretend to be an expert on talking about race. But I can share with you some of what I’ve learned from doing this show that might help you talk about race with your friends, family, co-workers or neighbors. That’s the point of the show: to make these conversations easier.

1. Let people tell their own stories.

In the show we always want people to tell their own stories in their own words. It’s so hard for people to be heard fully when talking about race: emotions take over and tensions rise, making conversation tough. That makes it even more powerful when we say, “No, really … YOU talk. WE’LL listen.”

2. Aim for empathy.

I’m black. My partner is white. And he’s made no secret of the benefit he gets from listening to Truth Be Told: He’s tired of being afraid to talk about race, and our program helped him find the confidence to do it. That means we’ve succeeded, at least with him, in the mission we laid out for ourselves from Day One: Foster empathy.

We can’t control what people do, and we can’t solve racial dilemmas, but we can give people a chance to open their hearts and minds. Because my partner can empathize a bit better with people of color, he’s more comfortable dealing with racial issues … and better equipped to deal with conflicts.

I admit, “empathy” felt like too small a goal for me for a long time. I really wanted to do something dynamic, something that would make a major dent in how we talk about race. Now I realize that empathy is the greatest goal we could have aspired to. Solutions come when people begin to understand each other, and empathy is the first step.

3. Let white people in.

OK, hear me out on this one!

image‘Truth Be Told’ production team: left to right, editor Julia McEvoy, contributor Adizah Eghan, producer Vinnee Tong, creator/host Joshua Johnson, director Suzie Racho, social media/engagement producer Olivia Allen-Price, community outreach coordinator Yo Ann Martinez. (Alan McLaughlin)
The Truth Be Told production team was mostly people of color, and nearly all female, but we did have a few white people working on the show. Those include our editor, Julia McEvoy, and our social media guru, Olivia Allen-Price. Everyone on the team was chosen because of their skills and the contributions they could make to the show, and I’m immensely grateful to all of them for their hard work. But as the project progressed, it became clear to me how essential it is to have whites in our conversations on race.

All of us began confronting our cultural blind spots: not just the white staff. All of us had great perspectives on the stories we produced: not just the people of color. And all of us began realizing things about race we hadn’t thought of before … including the white staff. It was pretty awesome to watch the transformation in all of us.

A conversation on race with all white people is probably lacking. A conversation with no white people might be OK, but remember: You could be missing an opportunity.

4. Don’t silence your critics — embrace them.

Truth Be Told has gotten some very strong feedback. The people who wrote in either loved it or hated it: no lukewarm reactions at all. And some of the more interesting exchanges I had were with the people who just detested what we were doing. They’d ask terse, snippy questions about our program, assuming that we hated white people or something.

But then, we did something they didn’t expect: We used some of those questions in the shows. We engaged them, directly but respectfully. Because the fact is, they were articulating some things that some of our listeners, almost surely, also felt but were afraid to say. Yeah, it’s annoying to constantly have to explain why it’s illogical to say All Lives Matter instead…, but if someone asks — even in a snarky, obnoxious way — we can channel that snark into sense-making. We take the sting out of it by turning it into a teaching moment.

Plus, the people who snipe at you probably are expecting you to either fire back or ignore them. They are almost never ready for you to engage them like human beings. Not all of them will come around, but if they do that means they see the humanity in you. I think that’s a goal worth the pain of getting occasionally sniped at online (to an extent, of course). Remember what Dr. Angelou said: people remember what they feel. I believe feeling included and validated is key in turning your haters … into participators.

What’s worked for you in talking to others about race? Tell us about your experiences by email or Twitter.

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